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The Oklahoman: Congress approves massive highway bill, with more than $3.4B for Oklahoma

December 3, 2015
News Stories

The Oklahoman - Chris Casteel

Congress gave strong bipartisan approval Thursday to a $305 billion highway bill that Oklahoma lawmakers praised for providing certainty to state officials planning critical road and bridge projects.

The bill, which President Barack Obama is expected to sign soon, will set the nation's surface transportation policy for the next five years and provide a boost in funding for highways and mass transit.

Oklahoma will receive an estimated $3.4 billion over the five years for roads and bridges and another $240 million for transit.

In the House, the bill was approved 359-65. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, was the only one of the five Oklahomans to oppose the bill.

The Senate approved the bill 83-16. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, helped write the bill and voted for it. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, opposed the legislation.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, said, “The importance of investing in the roads, bridges and rails utilized by all Americans cannot be overstated.

“At its core, the legislation shows commitment to a safe, efficient and well-maintained infrastructure, and this long-term measure offers greater certainty to projects at the state and local level, helps move people and products and keeps our economy strong and vibrant.”

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, one of the House negotiators on the legislation, said Oklahoma will receive nearly $300 million more under the bill than it would have under the current allocation formula.

The bill includes a provision written by Mullin to prevent the removal of church and civic group signs that are too large under federal regulations.

“State highway departments have more pressing things to do than be forced by the federal government to enforce the size of church and civic group signs,” Mullin said.

“I have been working hard to fix this problem, which was first brought to my attention by constituents and Oklahoma state legislators, and I am thrilled that we are almost across the finish line.”

Mullin praised a provision sought by Oklahoma officials to allow road work to commence on bridges badly in need of repair even if barn and cliff swallows, which nest in bridges, are present.

“Over 200 million trips are taken every day across failing bridges. We need to make sure repairs are made in a timely and efficient manner, so human lives are protected,” Mullin said.

Lankford objected to a portion of the bill's funding and to the renewal of the Export-Import Bank, which was included in the legislation. Tea party conservatives have complained that the bank is a form of corporate welfare.

"When the good transportation policy was connected to the finance portion of the bill, unfortunately, the bill did not meet basic budget standards," Lankford said.

"The Strategic Petroleum Oil Reserve was tapped to pay a portion of the cost, but the bill assumed oil would sell for $100 a barrel, when the actual current value is closer to $42 a barrel. The bill moves billions of dollars from the Federal Reserve surplus, which typically goes toward debt reduction, but will now go toward highway costs.

"Our nation needs a good highway construction and maintenance plan, but our nation also needs good budgeting and debt reduction. Unfortunately, the (highway bill) does not do both."

Inhofe, who has worked for more than a decade on this and other highway bills with Sen. Barbara Boxer, issued a joint statement with the California Democrat.

"We couldn't be more proud of the overwhelming vote today, because this legislation is essential for jobs, for our safety by rebuilding our roads and bridges and for our economic standing in the world," they said.

Online: The Oklahoman